Authority looks for ways to cut $15M deficit
By EILEEN STILWELL
The Delaware River Port Authority gave a $350,000 grant Wednesday to the Battleship New Jersey to keep it from drowning in a $2 million whirlpool of debt.
The decision to support the "Big J," a tourist attraction on the Camden waterfront, came the same day staff and commissioners of the bistate authority struggled privately to find ways to plug its own reported $15 million deficit.
One possibility - which has triggered a trove of nasty e-mails to DRPA from commuters using the authority's four bridges - is to eliminate discounts for E-ZPass users. Now, E-ZPass holders pay $2.70 to cross the bridges, instead of the $3 toll. Those crossing at least 20 times a month receive a $14 discount on top of the general discount.
The Authority will hold four public hearings between Dec. 1 and Dec. 4 seeking input on the cost-saving measure.
"I'm not in favor of dropping the discount, but I don't expect a final decision to be made until after the public hearings," said Commissioner Jacquelyn Love of Deptford Township.
The authority also reversed on Wednesday an earlier decision to conduct two meetings in December, so that there would be some time to digest its 2004 budget between introduction and adoption. Despite objections from the Courier-Post, the Authority will unveil and presumably adopt it at the Dec. 10 meeting.
William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said a one-shot deal would never fly in the state's 566 municipalities which are governed by the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act.
"Good government happens when people know what's in a budget and have time to ask questions before it is ultimately adopted," said Dressel.
Because DRPA is a bistate authority, it maintains it is not governed by Sunshine Laws in either state, therefore, it can introduce and adopt its budget whenever it wants.
Vice Chairman Jeffrey Nash, who also heads Camden County's Board of Freeholders, said DRPA's 16 commissioners need "to cut the fat" from the authority's budget before reaching out to toll payers to make up a shortfall.
DRPA is funded largely by tolls collected from motorists on its bridges. Projected toll revenues for 2003 are $173.6 million. Economic development projects are funded by revenue bonds backed by the toll revenues.
"Based on letters, phone calls and e-mails I've received about dropping discounts on E-ZPass, there's a lot of anger out there. I think it's imperative to examine all options," Nash said.
Among them is an early retirement incentive package that has been offered to 170 of DRPA's 1,013 full-time employees, and the possibility of layoffs.
Nash said 68 people were hired between January 2002 and April 2003 when John J. Matheussen replaced Paul Drayton after nine years as DRPA's executive director. He declined to say how many were replacements or additions to security in the post 9/11 era.
Sensitive to criticism that DRPA subsidizes too many losing operations, including the PATCO Hi-Speedline, the RiverLink, Ameriport, the Cruise Terminal and the World Trade Center, Nash called the $350,000 grant to the Battleship New Jersey Museum an "investment, not a subsidy."
The authority has been a generous supporter of the battleship in the last three years. To date, it has given the Home Port Alliance, a nonprofit coalition that governs the museum, $10.5 million in grants and a $1 million loan guarantee.
Matheussen, who co-chairs the Home Port Alliance, said reduced state grants have rocked the battleship's financial stability. For the fiscal year ending June 30, the battleship's revenue was $2 million shy of its $5.7 million operating budget.
Earlier this month, the museum laid off about a dozen of its 90 paid employees. It also plans to control costs in January by closing Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to the public.
About 150,000 visitors are expected to tour the ship this year, plus about 50,000 people who have boarded for special events and Scout sleepovers. Last year, the ship had 200,000 daily tour visitors and 40,000 people for special events.
The New Jersey is the most decorated battleship in the Navy. Built in the former Philadelphia Naval shipyard, it served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It was retired in 1991 and opened as a museum on October 2001.
Reach Eileen Stilwell at (856) 486-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org